The outpouring of the Holy Ghost at Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles, California was a revival that occurred in the early twentieth century. It began April 9, 1906 and lasted until 1909. This revival is considered to be the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement. From it, many Pentecostal denominations were formed and the Holiness-Pentecostal movement spread to the far reaches of the world.1 This revival was also characterized by an absence of racial prejudice.
The revival began in prayer services conducted by William J. Seymour in the home of Richard Asberry. This revival occurred after Seymour was expelled from the Church of the Nazarene mission pastored by Julia Hutchins. On April 9, 1906, while conducting prayer service, Seymour and seven other attendees fell to the floor and began speaking in tongues. This occurrence frightened Asberry’s daughter, who fled through the kitchen door.
After news of this event spread throughout the neighborhood, Seymour and the other prayer service attendees moved the service to the front porch of Asberry’s home. Because of the demonstration of tongues in the service, huge crowds began to gather in the streets to see what was happening. As the crowds gathered, Caucasian-Americans began to mingle in the crowds.
As crowds pressed into the house and porch, the floor caved in. No one was hurt. However, Seymour decided to find a larger facility in which to hold services. He found an old abandoned Methodist church building that had been used as a tenement house and delivery stable.2 It was a two story wooden structure3 located at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles.4
After the building was acquired, it was cleaned out. Makeshift benches were made and used for seating. An old dry goods box was used as a pulpit. Seymour used the upstairs Sunday School rooms as living quarters.5 The downstairs area was set up as the assembly room. Another upstairs room was designated as the “tarrying room”. It was the place where persons went who desired to be baptized in the Holy Ghost. The “tarrying room” contained a sign that read, “No talking above a whisper”.
When attendees first arrived, they bowed in prayer. As little social greeting as possible was given. Service would start spontaneously through testimonies, praise and worship. There were no hymnbooks. Old well-known hymns were sung from memory. The most popular hymn sung was, “The Comforter Has Come”. Another popular song was “Under the Blood”.6 There was no piano.7
Services were not prearranged. No subjects were announced in advance. The Holy Ghost ordered the service in meekness and humility. Most of the time, Seymour sat with his head in the makeshift box pulpit – praying. The message of the meeting was love.8
After Seymour began preaching at the “Azusa Stable”, “a monumental revival began”. People fell under the power of God and rose speaking in tongues.9 Worshippers, both men and women, shouted, wept, danced, fell into trances, spoke and sang in tongues and interpreted [what had been said in tongues] into English.10 The Holy Ghost was so powerful at “Azusa Stable”, men would come under conviction within two or three blocks of the mission. Persons were baptized in the Holy Ghost on their seats in the assembly room as well as in the “tarrying room” upstairs. When the Holy Ghost would make an altar call, men all over the building would be slain in the Spirit.11
Service attendance grew from approximately a dozen persons – African-American and Caucasian-American12 – to hundreds and thousands from the Los Angeles area. People of every race and nationality were found in the crowds that converged on the mission.13 No respect of persons was found among the worshippers. The rich and educated were the same as the poor and uneducated. Pride, self-assertion and self-importance could not survive there.14 Races were completely integrated. There was no racial prejudice in the service.15 African-Americans, Caucasian-Americans, Chinese and Jews attended the services.16 Because of this, Frank Bartleman believed17 and exclaimed, “The color line is washed away in the blood!”18
Eventually, the services ran day and night. The building was never closed or locked. Each night service was packed out. Holiness meetings, tents and missions closed for lack of attendance.19 Special prayer meetings broke out everywhere. People would meet early in the morning and start singing. S. Henry McGowan, son of Seymour’s friend, W. H. McGowan, recalled of the singing, “…oh what singing!”
People were excited about what God was doing in their midst. Those who had been filled with the Holy Ghost testified about it. They said how wonderful it was. After the testimonies, someone would preach and tell what God had promised.
The meetings would go on almost all night. If people were hungry, they would leave and get something to eat and return as soon as possible. W. H. McGowan hauled bricks as an occupation. Often he would stop and listen to the service while working. Sometimes, he would get so caught up in what was going on, he would forget to go back to work! McGowan characterized the meetings as the “love of God”.20
News of the revival at Azusa Street Mission spread primarily through Seymour and Bartleman. Seymour wrote of the revival in The Apostolic Faith, a four page free newspaper that he started.21 It contained articles about people speaking in tongues, news of hymns being sung and prophesies being given in foreign languages, supernatural healing of diseases, visions of tongues of fire and spectacular religious ecstasy. The paper’s reports attracted those who read them.22 It was also reported a woman, Anna Hall, had attended a Russian church in Los Angeles and preached to the congregation in their own language. Anna did not know the Russian language. In December 1906, the paper reported, “the Lord God is in Los Angeles in different missions and churches in mighty power, in spite of opposition”.
Frank Bartleman wrote about the revival in Way of Faith, a Holiness periodical published in Columbia, South Carolina. In August 1906, he wrote, “Pentecost has come to Los Angeles, the American Jerusalem”. He also wrote, “strong men lie for hours under the mighty powers of God, cut down like grass”.23
Bartleman first heard of the outpouring of the Holy Ghost on April 15, 1906, shortly after the initial outpouring at 214 Bonnie Brae Street. During the Sunday morning worship service at New Testament Church in Los Angeles, an African-American woman spoke in tongues. Joseph Smale was the church’s pastor. Bartleman was a member of the church. After the service, worshippers gathered on the sidewalk and inquired of the meaning of the manifestation of tongues. It was learned the Holy Ghost had fallen a few nights before at the cottage on Bonnie Brae Street and a number of persons had spoken in tongues.
Bartleman visited the service at Bonnie Brae Street that evening. The spirit of the meeting was one of humility. After visiting the service, he was convinced Jesus was again showing Himself alive. Bartleman also believed the outpouring present at the cottage was the result of a time of preparation through prayer.24
Opposition to the revival arose from newspaper reporters, denominational leaders and critics who did not like the emotional aspects of the meeting. A Los Angeles Times reporter described the meeting as “wild scenes” of a new “sect of fanatics”. Seymour was maligned as “an old colored exhorter” who “acted as major-domo of the company” and hypnotized unbelievers with his “stony optic” eye. African-American women were described as “colored mammys” who gurgled “wordless talk in a frenzy of religious zeal”. One “foreign-born reporter” who had come to the meeting to report on the “circus-like” revival left convinced of the authenticity of speaking in tongues. While he was there, an ignorant woman rose to her feet, looked at him, spoke in his native language and told him secrets only he could have known.25 Concerning persecution from the press, Bartleman wrote they “wrote us up shamefully”. However, he never considered such persecution to be a threat to the revival.26
Denominational leaders who opposed the revival included Alma White, Phineas Bresee and A. B. Simpson.27 Alma White was the leader of Pillar of Fire, a Holiness denomination that specialized in the “holy dance” as evidence of sanctification. One of her disciples, Nettie Harwood, reported people at the mission were singing songs “in a far away tune that sounded very unnatural and repulsive”.28 Other objections from Pillar of Fire concerned a report that an African-American woman had been seen praying for a Caucasian-American man with her arms around his neck.29 White wrote a polemic against the Pentecostal movement that was published in 1936. The work entitled Demons and Tongues, represented early old-school Holiness criticism. In the polemic, White called speaking in tongues “satanic gibberish” and Pentecostal services “the climax of demon worship”.30 Alma White was a racist and a Klu Klux Klan Sympathizer.
31 Bartleman called Alma White, the revival’s “bitterest critic”.32
Phineas Bresee placed Church of the Nazarene in direct opposition to the Azusa Street revival. He considered it a threat to his own congregation. Church of the Nazarene became a stronghold of anti-Pentecostal thought.33
A. B. Simpson rejected the doctrine that all speak with tongues as evidence of Holy Ghost baptism. After a May 1907 revival in Nyack, New York at Missionary Training Institute, many students and faculty members began to speak in tongues. Simpson then decided tongues were only “one of the evidences” of Holy Ghost indwelling. Tongues were then allowed in Christian Missionary Alliance services, but they were not encouraged.34
One critic of the emotional aspects of the revival was Charles Fox Parham. Reports had come to Parham about “stunts common in old camp meetings among colored folks” being performed in the revival and “white people were imitating unintelligent, crude negroisms of the Southland” while attributing this behavior to the Holy Ghost. Also, Seymour requested help from Parham because of the presence of spiritualists and mediums in the services.35 According to Bartleman, hypnotists, “religious sore-heads”, “crooks and cranks” also attended the revival. Evil spirits present during the services hindered the meeting such that many persons were afraid to seek God for fear “the devil might get them”.36 Seymour asked Parham to come and supervise the revival.37
Parham visited the revival at Azusa Street Mission in October 1906. After arriving at the mission, he observed the service from the rear of the building. He then pushed his way through the crowd and entered the pulpit. There, he shook Seymour’s hand and spoke after Seymour invited him to do so. Parham said, “God is sick at His stomach” due to “animism”.
The word animism was Parham’s description of the enthusiastic worship he had witnessed. It was a racist charge that condemned the African roots of African-Americans. During this time period, Caucasian-American evangelicals frequently assumed much African-American church worship was a combination of Christian ideas and African animistic practices and beliefs.
In addition to the emotional display of worship, the mixing of the races disgusted Parham. He wrote,
“I have seen meetings where all crowded around the altar and laying hands across one another like hogs, blacks and whites mingling; this should be enough to bring a blush of shame to devils, let alone equals and yet all this was charged to the Holy Spirit…”.
Parham considered African-Americans at Azusa Street Mission to be out of their “place”. He believed Noah’s flood was God’s wrath for the mixing of the races and Caucasians to be distant descendants of the Lost Tribe of Israel. Parham was also disgusted because many persons [claiming Holy Ghost baptism] spoke “no languages at all”, but chattered, jabbered and sputtered.38
After he preached three times at the mission, Seymour’s followers asked Parham to leave. Parham then opened services39 in a local Women’s Christian Temperance Union building. Attendees to these services included Caucasian-Americans who shared Parham’s racial prejudice.40 These services were short lived. They failed to alter the course of the move of God at Azusa Street Mission.41
In his writings, Frank Bartleman compared the onslaught of evil forces against the revival at Azusa Street Mission to difficulties experienced by Martin Luther and John Wesley. Such forces included criticism, jealousy, unbelief and counterfeiting. Prayer overcame the fear of “being gotten by the devil”. Bartleman believed God brought victory through the saints’ prayers and protected the revival from evil forces until it was strong enough to withstand the onslaught.42
During the three years of the revival, visitors from all parts of the nation wrote reports about it. These reports were read by most of the Holiness people of the United States. Word of the revival spread to Europe. Preachers from around the continent came to Los Angeles.43 Missionaries from Africa, India and islands of the sea also came to the revival at Azusa Street Mission.44
Eventually, pilgrims to Azusa became a Who’s Who list of early Pentecostal leaders. Such leaders include Florence Crawford who spread the Pentecostal message in the Northwest United States, William H. Durham who brought the Pentecostal movement to the Mid-Western United States and Elder Sturdevant, an African-American preacher who founded the first Pentecostal church in New York City. The following leaders came to Azusa Street Mission and spread the Pentecostal message in individual states: G. B. Cashwell in North Carolina, Glenn A. Cook in Indiana, C. H. Mason in Tennessee, Samuel Saell in Arizona and Rachael Sizelove in Missouri. Others took the Pentecostal message to other countries. They include R. E. McAlister who took the message to Ottawa, Canada and T. B. Barratt, a Norwegian Methodist who took the message to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, France and England. Many of these leaders founded Pentecostal denominations.45
Often pilgrims to Azusa who had racial issues at heart testified to a change of heart as a result of seeking God for Holy Ghost baptism. Many southern Caucasian-Americans had been disturbed because of the interracial worship at Azusa. Caucasian-Americans did not merit special attention in the meetings.46 One southern gentleman in particular who had a racial issue was Gaston Barnabas Cashwell.
Cashwell, a Caucasian-American minister of Pentecostal Holiness Church, heard of the revival at Azusa Street Mission through Way of Faith. In November 1906, he traveled by rail from Dunn, North Carolina to Los Angeles to attend the revival.47 Upon his arrival at the mission, Cashwell found an African-American, Seymour, in charge of the services and the majority of the worshippers African-American.
This was unsettling to Cashwell, who was deeply prejudiced against African-Americans.48 After returning to this hotel room, he experienced a “crucifixion” and “died” to “his racial prejudice”. The next night,49 he humbled himself and asked Seymour and other African-American men to lay hands on him and pray that he be filled with the Holy Ghost. Cashwell was then Holy Ghost baptized, evidenced by speaking in tongues.50
Charles Harrison Mason, an African-American and founder of Church of God in Christ, traveled from Memphis, Tennessee to Los Angeles in March 1907. J. A. Jeter and D. J. Young, two Church of God in Christ ministers accompanied him. When they arrived at Azusa Street Mission, Seymour was in charge of the services, however, the majority of the worshippers were Caucaisian-Americans.51
At the time of his arrival to the mission, Mason was troubled by social conditions in the South. In particular, lynchings, the maltreatment of Ida B. Wells by Memphis Caucasians, the pervasiveness of poverty among African-Americans and Caucasian-Americans, the Klu Klux Klan, African-Americans’ inability to vote and “ungodly deeds among the races” troubled him. While seeking Holy Ghost baptism, Mason was instructed by the Lord to let those troubles go and trust Him. Concerning this Mason wrote,
“That night the Lord spoke to me that Jesus saw all of this world’s wrongs but did not attempt to set it right until God overshadowed Him with the Holy Ghost. And He said that ‘I was no better than my Lord’ and if I wanted Him to baptize me, I would have to let the people’s rights and wrongs all alone and look to Him. And I said yes to God.”52
Mason, Jeter and Young were Holy Ghost baptized at Azusa Street Mission.53
After their Holy Ghost baptisms, Cashwell’s and Mason’s ministries spread the Pentecostal movement in the South. In the South, Cashwell became known as the “Apostle of Pentecost”. Mason ordained many of the founders of Assemblies of God.54
According to Vinson Synan, the Pentecostal Movement birthed in the 1906-1909 revival at Azusa Street Mission was “the logical outcome of the holiness crusade which had vexed American Protestantism…and the Methodist Church.” It was “the child of the holiness movement” and the grandchild of Methodism. “Practically all the early Pentecostal leaders were firm advocates of sanctification as a ‘second work of grace’ and…added” Holy Ghost baptism as a “third blessing”.55